Transcendence and Extremism

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When we think of extremism, the communities that first come to mind are often religious in nature. Perhaps this is because people turn to religion looking for answers bigger than themselves, just as a central part of extremism is associating with a greater cause or group. While this reveals the danger of associating with something greater than ourselves: a race, a religion, a nation, or another community or facet of identity, transcending ourselves through community is part of the definition of spirituality, at least the definition I was taught, which is by Sr. Sandra Marie Schneiders, IHM. This begs the question of how to separate the positive transcendence from the dangerous. Sr. Schneiders’ uses ‘love’ to nuance her understanding of transcendence in the context of spirituality, but this feels like a cop-out. There is no doubt in my mind that the Tsarnaev brothers, who will be discussed in this essay, loved each other and their community, or that said love was true. I assess that the difference is not the presence of a transcendent love, but rather the restriction of who deserves to be part of that transcendent community: in other words, who deserves to be considered human. 

The boundary of who is human exists at the center of a dialectic in the minds of the radicalized between their claimed community and all else. The sources of that grand image of a larger community pitted against the world are various, but they have a common effect of dehumanization. In the 21st century, we can be certain that the media’s socially formative power is a major driver of this divisive mindset. Just as representation in one’s media intake can result in a profound humanization of a particular identity group, a lack of representation, or, worse, a negative representation, can have effects that lead to the denial of the humanity of a certain group. Diverse and representative media consumption is critical to forming a perspective that includes all humans in humanity.

The most widespread and public image of radicalization in recent memory involves the violent actions taken by Trump loyalists in the waning days of his presidency. Us-vs-them rhetoric, long a staple of the GOP, gained momentum in the 2008 election cycle through attacks on Democratic nominee Barack Obama based on lies about his national origin and religion. Religion and nationality served an even more prominent role in the 2016 election cycle as prejudice based on them became central policy goals rather than ad hominem attacks. The demographic and cultural shifts away from White Christian hegemony, which these political shifts were in reaction to, lay the backdrop for the violence of January 6th. As a microcosm of the larger radicalization of Trumpism, the Attack on Congress was in reaction to the loss of power that came from the certification of the electoral votes to the Democratic Party. The violent actions taken by those that stormed the Capitol may have been sparked by the election, but in actuality are based on hatred built up by the normalization of prejudicial tribalism. 

The radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings, had a similarly two-leveled power loss which led to their radicalization. Masha Gessens, author of The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy about the Tsarnaev brothers, mentioned that the brothers built up a “virtual Russian-speaking, Chechen-centric identity,” recognizing the role that technology can play in connecting individuals with ideas and identities larger than themselves. For the Tsarnaev brothers, their personal hopelessness is connected to the larger marginalization of the Chechen and Muslim communities. Both of these aspects of their identity were unwelcome in their family’s new home of America. Interestingly, these identities are also under attack in Russia as well, the location of their ancestral homelands, Chechnya and Dagestan. This larger struggle was the background for the personal losses faced by the Tsarnaev brothers: financial problems, the marital abuse of their sisters, and a lack of control over their own lives. These sparked the Tsarnaev brothers to turn to the strength offered by radicalizing agents through the group-identity, leading to tragedy. Therefore, radicalization requires a personal or immediate perceived difficulty which unleashes the hate built up by the group struggle or prejudice from which the radicalized individuals derive validity and strength.

Responding to the issue of radicalization and extremism requires a two-pronged approach: first, we must provide proper safety nets so people do not turn to radicalizing agents; and second, we must look to the root of the issue by affirming the humanity of each individual, dissolving the dialectics that pit a community against the world.